By John Balch
The South Pike County School District is in the middle of “the perfect storm” when it comes to finances, according to Superintendent Brad Sullivan.
The district is currently flush with earmarked pandemic relief funds, but is struggling to fund the district’s daily operations.
Sullivan and school board members have decided the financial issue can be helped by asking voters to extend the district’s millage debt for 30 years.
If approved, the debt extension would involve no new taxes or rate hikes and “can only help,” Sullivan said.
“It’s kind of the perfect storm for us,” he said. “We are going to have this (pandemic) money and then if we extend our debt, it will free up construction money to be used for facility projects and we can blend the two and get more done than we could have individually.”
The issue is set for the Tuesday, May 18 ballot. Polls will be open from 7:30-7:30 on Election Day with early voting to begin May 11 in the Pike County Clerk’s office.
Besides being used to make improvements to existing facilities, the proposed extension will also support the state-mandated teacher and staff salary increases.
The state is offering some financial assistance in the area of funding the teacher and staff raises, but Sullivan said the money will only go so far.
“The governor gave us money, but it’s not going to cover it all,” he said.
Governor Asa Hutchinson has signed into law Senate Bill 504 and companion House Bill 164 to give teachers a raise and make the state more competitive in the area of recruiting. An education trust fund will be established so that the average salary can be increased by an estimated $2,200, creating a new average of $51,822, up from $49,822. The average salary across the state will be reevaluated every two years. The governor has noted funding for this salary increase will come from adequacy funding and the new educational trust fund.
If approved, the debt extension would give the district approximately $1 million to be used on facility upgrades as well as saving the district money on annually debt payments.
“It’s going to free up funds for projects,” Sullivan said.
Some of the proposed projects related to the debt extension and the related savings include a safe room with additional classroom space, remodeling the student center with classroom space, a band stand at Rattler Stadium, additional bathrooms for middle school students, relocating the bus barn. Additional projects that are being considered are replacing older less efficient HVAC units and a floor project to remove tile and carpet throughout the elementary and high school campuses, a move that would make the campus easier to clean and fails under pandemic protocol for spending.
Sullivan said many of the projects can be paid for by a combination of pandemic funds and those created by the proposal.
“We can utilizes two pots of money to put us in a better position,” he said.
The pandemic funds currently available to the district is more than $1.8 million. This money is restricted in use and is strictly earmarked for spending.
“We’re getting in a better position (with the pandemic funds) but at the end of the day we can’t keep up,” Sullivan said about the struggle to fund the district’s daily operations.
Sullivan also said the bond market is right for an extension as the district has been advised by Stephens Inc. This is a common practice among school districts to generate additional funds to run school districts, added Sullivan.
If voters approve the millage extension, patrons will continue to pay the same 41-mill tax rate for an additional 14 years from the current sunset date of 2037.
If voters do not approve the proposed extension, patrons will continue to pay the same tax rate until 2037.
Also, if the measure is not approved and once it sunsets, patrons can expect the district to be asking for a millage increase.
“Once it sunsets, that’s something the district will need to address when the time comes, and it’s going to be hard to tackle,” Sullivan added.